When Words With Jam asked me to write a piece about writing for documentary films, I had to break the news to them that it’s not something I do. Well, to clarify: I write and I make documentaries, but the documentaries I make are not written.
There is a honourable tradition of documentaries which do depend on carefully written narration - think of history programmes and nature series like Life On Earth - but the films I make tend to be either observational or constructed out of interviews, without voice-over commentary. However, they may not be written but they are certainly constructed and, like any form of movie making or writing, they need a story.
Stories are key. A few years ago I wrote a novel (about a world where no one believed or believed in anything any more - sorry, it was meant to be a satire, not a prophecy) and, in the years leading up to and around it, I got very involved in writing groups - both online and (more intensely) in the ‘real world’. The thing about writing groups is that analysis tends to take place on a page by page or sentence by sentence basis. We would talk about point-of-view, whether mood and emotion were convincingly expressed, whether metaphors were working, whether dialogue was convincing. We urged each other to ‘show not tell’, to cut away the fat, to be honest and direct. We seldom talked about story and how a story is constructed.
Workshops in the literary world seldom discuss story structure but their movie equivalents talk about little else. Screenwriting courses and books outline elaborate systems to analyse the mechanics of a story; there are no end of screenwriting gurus keen to inculcate their personal take on the 3-part, 5-part, 7-part or even 11-part story structure.
At its worst, the formula approach to screenwriting produces the formulaic movie where you can set your watch at the ‘inciting incident’ that occurs 20 minutes in; the twist and turns of the plot are so familiar that, rather than being elevated or entertained, you feel you are taking part in a meaningless ritual.
At the same time, we know when stories work and when they don’t, as when we get to the end of a book or a story and feel cheated. When a story is weak, almost inevitably you can point to a structural fault (sadly, the converse is not true - you can’t create a great story purely on the basis of an impeccable understanding of structure). Story, in itself is a form - depart from it too much and it ceases to be a story. The fact that a reader can feel cheated means that there is some sort of implicit deal between author and reader, but fulfilling that deal is not that simple.
Let’s start with the basics: stories are about characters and characters are ‘wanting machines’ - a character who doesn’t want anything is not really a character. This has little to do with screenwriting theory, it is the essence of classic storytelling and drama. Go see any Shakespeare play - as soon as a character appears on stage, you know what he or she wants, just as we know what Jack and Jill went up the hill for. Characters all want something but, of course, they can’t quite get it. One screenwriting guru described the mainspring of narrative as being the gap between expectation and result: a character has an intention and does something expecting a particular result. But something else happens and how he or she responds to that is the essence of story.
Desires are the engine of story and the structure of that story holds together the diverging and overlapping paths of those desires. There is always set-up, conflict and resolution - if you don’t have those basic elements, you don’t really have a story. Of course, you can have films and books without stories, just as you can have atonal music without melody and art that is purely abstract, but there is always some form of inherent tension, and for the vast majority of the world, we expect our books and films to be based on narrative.
When I look back to my fellow writers in those workshops, so often the problems were structural and fundamental. Stories would not end right because they didn't start right - protagonists would go on a journey without a clear reason why, they would be passive, they would not make choices or decisions but just drift along (another useful screenwriting trope: character is not revealed by what the protagonist looks like or says, but by the decisions she or he takes).
Someone once described the ideal screenplay as one which keeps you guessing what is going to happen all the way to the end but, when you finally get there, you realise that no other ending was possible.
Let’s get back to where this essay started. Documentaries, of course, are narrative forms - they have stories, and the world does not naturally come in story form; stories are something that humans construct.
Often TV documentaries are accused of inaccuracy or distortion or downright lying - what seems to pass by almost all viewers is that, in a sense, every documentary is a lie - it is a construction, and constructing a documentary is very similar to writing fiction. You need to find characters, you need to see them in conflict, you need to offer a resolution. You need a story. ‘Fly on the wall’ TV documentaries might shoot 100 hours or more for an hour of TV; subjects often complain ‘our life isn’t really like that - most of the time not much happens and it’s really boring’. Of course, but, importantly, this is not just a case of just throwing away the 99 hours when nothing much happened, it’s choosing the 60 minutes that can be shaped into a hour that tells a story.
How do you find those precious 60 minutes? The process is very similar to writing a story – you find characters, protagonists and antagonists, individuals with goals to achieve that are frustrated or challenged in one way or another. You look for conflict and possible resolution.
The process is, perhaps, not quite as nefarious as it seems, it’s something we do all the time when we respond to questions like ‘what happened at work today?’ or ‘how did that date go?’. The questioner doesn’t actually want a list of events and actions, they want a story.
How do you maintain some sense of integrity, how do you guard yourself against accusations of distortion or bias? That is a very difficult question to answer, but it applies to every non-fiction account whether it is an essay, a newspaper story or a documentary. It is easier to spot manipulation and outright lies than it is to find paradigms of authenticity. The judgements you have to make are complex, subtle and subjective. The best you can do, perhaps, is to present people as you see them, as honestly as you can and avoid things like using out-of-character remarks or out-of-context juxtapositions which would present the situation unfairly, but that ‘fairness’ is still a subjective judgement.
|Choosing the images that tell a story: still from Mario's Cafe|
Often when you set out to make a documentary you are not quite sure what the story is - or you think you do, but you end up with a different one. A few years ago I made short film about my local café - a small, personal project - because I thought there was something rather special about the place - it seemed as more of a community resource than a place where people just fed themselves. The owner, Mario, is a charmer but the themes only emerged after spending many days hanging out and filming there. Mario clearly loves the place and its clientele, but there is also a sense that he could have done more with his life, and the job, like most jobs, is hard work and frustrating. But it needed something else, and through chance, another story emerged. Mario had employed a young waitress, who was constantly late. Every day he complains about her (although not to her face). Then one very busy Saturday… well, I won’t tell you quite what happens but, in that moment, his character is revealed (remember what I said above? ‘Character is revealed by the decisions the protagonist makes’.)
Mario’s Café has no pretence to be a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary as Mario acknowledges my camera’s presence and talks to me occasionally. The story of the late waitress is true, but astute viewers may notice that the busy Saturday towards the end of the film is a composite of two days, and, because it was only shot with one camera which can not be in two places at the same time, ‘reaction shots’ never take place quite when they are supposed to. Having said that, nothing was contrived for the camera – but you will have to take that on trust.
Roland’s satirical novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement, is still available on Amazon, as is the DVD of Mirage Men, the feature length documentary he co-produced and co-directed. He recently directed a series of short films on the arts for the pan-South American TV channel, teleSUR. More about his various projects here.